MEMPHIS – During his recent absence from the team, Ja Morant spent part of his time watching Grizzlies games from afar and breaking down film he requested from the staff.
After stumbling through their first couple of games without him, Morant quickly saw a squad eventually find its way as players leaned on one another more by sharing the ball. It was part of the process of shouldering the burden while missing their All-NBA point guard and franchise catalyst.
Morant watched as the Grizzlies slightly tweaked their system, as coach Taylor Jenkins subtly tightened his rotation and as veterans Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks and Tyus Jones stabilized the team through the season’s toughest times.
It was around that time, about two weeks ago, when Morant considered how to best reacclimate himself after eight games away to deal with a conduct-related disciplinary issue. He also sat out a ninth consecutive game to work on conditioning after returning to the team.
“While I was out, I was studying,” Morant explained of a system in which all five Grizzlies players on the court were facilitators. “I pretty much watched all the games and how they were moving the ball and playing point-five basketball, being very unselfish and getting good looks. That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to come off the bench early on, to get that feel for that playing style. I love it. We have to keep that up. We have a lot more guys playing confidently.”
After initially coming off the bench for two wins over the Rockets last week, Morant returned to the starting lineup with a team-high 27 points and six assists in Sunday’s 123-119 victory in Atlanta. And as his ramp-up process continues this week, although he is listed as doubtful for Tuesday’s game against Orlando with thigh soreness, Morant is committed to fitting in with what the surging Grizzlies (47-27) have established on both ends of the court.
What started as a disastrous month of March for Memphis wraps up with the Grizzlies entering this week riding the NBA’s longest current overall winning streak at six games. They have also won 11 consecutive home games heading into a three-game stretch at FedExForum that opens with Tuesday’s matchup with the Magic followed by a two-game set against the Clippers.
The Grizzlies went 6-3 in the nine March games Morant missed. They’ve also won nine of their past 10 games overall. During that 10-game span, Memphis ranked fourth in the NBA in assists at 28.7 a game and fifth in the league in made 3-pointers at 15 per contest.
With eight regular-season games remaining, it’s shaping up as another historic campaign. The Grizzlies have already clinched a third straight playoff berth and a second consecutive Southwest Division title. And with an NBA-best 32-5 record at home, they would set a franchise record for most home wins in a season with their next victory at FedExForum.
It just took some time to find our way again. When you’re hit with the kind of adversity we had, especially in such a short period of time, it knocks you back a little bit. But we know the kind of guys we have in this locker room. We know the kind of coaching staff we have. We’re a resilient group.Tyus Jones
Still, the Grizzlies remain locked in on the bigger picture yet to unfold ahead of them.
“Proud of the work this entire group has put in – that’s our players, our staff, our support staff, everyone in the organization,” said Jenkins, who is coming off his 300th game as Grizzlies coach. “There’s a lot of goals you want to accomplish in a single season, but we’ve got so much more work to do. We’ve got a lot more loftier goals, and we get there just one day at a time. So, keep focusing on that. Great accomplishment. Our fans should be proud of it, our city. I’m proud of it for sure. I know we are, but we’re going to focus on just getting better tomorrow.”
It's that mindset that allowed the Grizzlies to collectively rally in remarkable fashion to get to this point. March opened with the team reeling from injuries, including one that delayed starting center Steven Adams’ potential return from a knee ailment to the end of the regular season.
On top of that, reserve forward Brandon Clarke was lost to a season-ending Achilles tear in the March 4 loss at Denver. That was also the last contest Morant played before serving an eight-game NBA conduct-related suspension. At the time, the Grizzlies were mired in a road losing streak and were faltering late in games as the NBA’s worst team in fourth quarter production.
“It just took some time to find our way again,” said Jones, who filled in admirably for Morant as the starting point guard. “When you’re hit with the kind of adversity we had, especially in such a short period of time, it knocks you back a little bit. But we know the kind of guys we have in this locker room. We know the kind of coaching staff we have. We’re a resilient group.”
The Grizzlies have bounced back, individually and collectively.
Jones is on pace to lead the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio for a record fourth straight season. Jackson put together the most dominant stretch of his career, scoring at least 25 points in five straight games during a run that ended last week. He remains the NBA’s leader in blocked shots and a frontrunner for the NBA’s defensive player of the year honor.
According to StatMuse, Jackson is the NBA’s first player since Hall of Famer David Robinson in 1996 to average at least 18 points, 6.7 rebounds, 3.1 blocks and 1.1 steals while shooting 50-percent from the field. Make no mistake, Jackson has been consistent all season.
But there was an uptick in his urgency as the Grizzlies were teetering earlier this month.
“Definitely a lot right now,” Jackson assured. “Being assertive and trying to abuse mismatches, taking it upon myself to be dominant and not take a possession off. Really just try every time to get what I want and get to my spots. It's all about spots. I'm learning that more and more each game, it's about trying to get to certain places on the floor where I can really be successful.”
As a result, the Grizzlies are consistently finding success again.
Four of the five starters are aligned, with Morant now rejoining Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks and Jackson. Jenkins has said Adams will be reevaluated at the end of this week and an update on his status could come during the first week of April.
The bench is now restored and in rhythm, with sharpshooter Luke Kennard having set a franchise record with 10 made 3-pointers in Friday’s 151-114 win over Houston. A month after joining the team at the trade deadline, Kennard is having career moments of his own in much the same fashion as Jones, Xavier Tillman, Santi Aldama and rookie forward David Roddy.
Encouraging news on Adams in the coming days would only boost momentum for Memphis.
Although the Grizzlies’ actions have spoken volumes recently, Bane supplied only a one-word answer when asked what his team lacked heading into the final stretch before the playoffs.
“Nothing,” he shot back.
Brooks agreed with that astute assessment.
“We’re getting ready for the playoffs, trying to fine-tune everything and get our guys back,” Brooks confirmed. “We’re ready for anybody going into that first round.”
Through all of March’s turbulence, the Grizzlies have maintained their standing as the No. 2 team in the Western Conference, now just three games behind the first-place Nuggets.
And there’s still time for Morant to work his way back into peak form ahead of the postseason.
“I’m getting there,” Morant suggested. “I’m getting a lot more comfortable, getting my legs under me a little bit. This team and my staff, they’re preparing me the right way each and every night. I believe in them 100 percent in how they’re managing me and ramping me back up. My job is to go out there and be Ja, doing the things Ja normally does.”
As Morant insists, Ja is getting there.
He’s fortunate to rejoin a team that initially stumbled, then steadily thrived.
On the verge of capping another historic regular season, these stronger Grizzlies have arrived.